LGBTI icon Michelle Visage often displays the extent of her passion and commitment to combat prejudice and bullying. She showed this and much more when I met her with my son and daughter in Glasgow last weekend.
Her visit was touching. My son has experienced homophobic bullying and I have struggled with my own self-acceptance. Michelle’s unique and warm approach, helping people to embrace themselves and others as well as challenging prejudice, is an important inspiration and lesson for the events of the anti-bullying week.
My partner, son, daughter and I attended Michelle’s talk last weekend at Waterstone’s in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. The RuPaul Drag’s Race judge, Celebrity Big Brother contestant, actor, singer and radio presenter warmed the Scottish winter with her passionate commitment to LGBTI equality, and her empathic response to bullying which she also experienced as a youth.
Michelle spoke openly about her school years. “I was bullied and I just didn’t fit in.” She never tried to fit in, and encouarges others to be themselves. “Be thankful you’re a misfit”, she said.
Whether it is wearing the “right” clothes, listening to the “right music” or wanting to be with the cool kids the message from this lady is loud and clear. Embrace the way you are and work it! Many people feel that to stop the bullying you need to change, to fit in and conform to the most popular majorities’ ways.
However, Michelle take s different view: “I didn’t fit in to any group at school. My mother would tell me to go out with friends and I told her I didn’t have any.
“At the age of 17 my mom got me fake ID and birth certificate to back it up and she encouraged me to go find what I liked. She knew I didn’t drink and wouldn’t go crazy but rather find where I did fit in.
“A parent should be a parent first and a friend second so it wasn’t like I could do whatever the hell I liked. It is more knowing what the kid needs. I found my place as the only female in a world full of drag queens.”
Anyone who has been bullied knows that support is paramount. Not only do you need someone to confide in but someone who confirms that there is nothing wrong with you. Changing to fit in and being untrue to yourself is not the path to a fulfilling life but often one that bullies impose on you.
Michelle’s personal story gives her a unique ability to empathise with LGBTI people. I know this because of how she responded to my son and I. First let me tell you a little about myself and my son.
My son was bullied from early on in his school life. He wasn’t macho enough to fit the stifling stereotype that declares a boy from the west coast of Scotland can’t be a flamboyant, football loathing, caring person.
By the age of 10 the bullying had intensified and I spoke directly to the school. The school claimed to be sympathetic but that the bullies were entitled to an education as much as anyone else. I didn’t agree with that skewed cop out and after relentless unsatisfactory school meetings I moved both my kids to a different local school.
The bullying didn’t stop. I hadn’t expected it would. However the new school had the correct methods in place to combat it and offer support. Now at secondary school my son has peers and teachers alike who offer support and encouragement.
For this young man Michelle Visage and Rupaul Charles are heroes. Towards the end of 2014 he asked me one night to watch TV with him. I was hesitant as my TV time is limited. RuPaul’s Drag Race astounded me. If you haven’t seen it let me tell you that it is a flamboyant, loud, self-accepting and celebratory drag queen competition. He was engrossed and my heart melted as he had found his thing…he could now embrace being a misfit.
Recently he told me he is gay in a confident self-accepting manner and for that Michelle Visage and Rupaul are my heroes. A once quiet, nervous shy boy has turned into a confident, articulate young man who no longer wishes he was something else, but values himself just the way he is. And I am content knowing that I never followed advice from others who told me to disallow him from pirouetting in supermarket isles or from playing with glitter and not footballs.
Prior to him opening up about his sexuality his growing confidence and opposition to prejudice greatly contributed to me being a bit more honest…well actually a lot more honest. I am that gay mum who never had his courage at his age and tried again and again to change and fit in.
Telling my kids that I had a girlfriend and it was serious had me shaking but months down the line I wonder what all my fear was about. Then I remembered. I was worried about not fitting in, worried about my kids being bullied because of me and worried that they’d never look at me the same again.
If you had seen my girlfriend and I with these two awesome kids at Michelle’s event you’d see that we are a very happy, self-accepting supportive little family and we were very proud of this boy who asked Michelle a question in a sold out venue.
After the event we chatted with Michelle. She recognised him from the front row of the audience and opened her arms. He ran into her embrace and it was almost like the remains of years of bullying and wanting to fit it dissolved completely. After the huge hug Michelle asked: “Where is the cool mom?”
Like any mum who has the guilt about not spending enough time with the kids and feels like sometimes you f**k up (every mother does) I welcomed this ego massage and gave her a huge hug too!
I chatted to her about the progress we are making as a society. There will always be bullies. But here’s the thing…as Michelle says “be thankful you’re a misfit”. There will be fabulous glittery light at the end of the tunnel.
I almost forgot. Michelle was at Waterstone’s promoting her book The Diva Rules which for anyone, parent, granny, friend thinking you have to fit in it is a must read. For the rest of us it is a glorious read (even though I haven’t finished it yet). She dedicates it: “To all my children, young and experienced, may you allow your inner diva to shine like the stars you are.”